Disclaimer: I am no philosopher, I am just a layperson trying to figure stuff out, so the definitions of words I’m using here, might not be the most precise.
I don’t get Jordan Peterson’s frustration with the Postmodernists, he has very much been influenced by Postmodernism. Peterson is no Modernist, and in some respects he’s not a Postmodernist either. However, he does not inhabit a Modernist world (think in the same terms a modernist would) and is instead, very much inhabiting the Postmodern world and trying to find a way out of its dilemmas.
First, it might be helpful to define, albeit somewhat vaguely and imprecisely, what I mean by Postmodernism:
Postmodernism, as I think of it, takes phenomenology and existentialism seriously and thinks in those terms. Thus there is a greater focus on the subjective experience of the individual, which isn’t characteristic of modernity as I think of it. This existential/phenomenological outlook, opens up critiques of modernist epistemology. Postmodernists are also concerned with the crisis of meaning modernity has created and either revel in it, or try to come up with solutions. Finally, Postmodernists offer political critiques of the modern political order and ideas of progress.
To explain why Peterson is inhabiting a Postmodern world, it might be helpful to run through the intellectual history of how Postmodernism developed.
A history of ideas which may or may not be accurate.
A Key shift that had to take place for modern science to emerge was the expulsion of consciousness (or the subject) from the study of the natural world. Aristotle famously had four causes, only two of which are intelligible to our our modern, mechanistic minds:
Material Cause: What is something made of?
Formal Cause: The essence, nature or design of something. Perhaps you could ask How is it?
Efficient cause: What brought it into existence?
Final Cause: The purpose of something, what it it’s end?
The move that had to be made for modern science to be born was to dismiss the final and formal causes and focus on the material and efficient causes. This move, focuses on matter instead of mind. In a world of pure matter, (picture a world without consciousness, which is of course impossible since YOU are picturing it.) questions of purpose or essence are unintelligible, since these causes are product of mind.
A further move, very much related to this one, was Galileo’s separation of primary and secondary qualities of objects. Primary qualities are independent of mind: solidity, extension, motion, number and figure. Secondary qualities are dependent on mind: colour, taste, scent, smell.
“I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned, and that they reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated”
Thus, the physical world is to be studied dispassionately, without letting the subject get in the way. And thus, modern science was born. The enlightenment optimism was that if we only give ourselves over to reason and logic, and study the natural world dispassionately, all of its secrets could be revealed. Indeed, to put it in Paul Vanderklay’s terms, if we can abstract ourselves out of our subjective experience and into the realm of pure reason, we can achieve the monarchical vision and see reality as it is. Thus the Modernist idea is that we, if we use our reason properly, can achieve a “God’s eye view” of the world.
From this high point of modernity, the development of postmodernism begins. The progression from modernism to postmodernism, if we we can speak coherently about such categories, is one that is undoubtedly more complex than I will be outlining here. Since modernism is not just a philosophical movement, but rather a general societal outlook or presuppositional backdrop, it encompasses all spheres of human existence: cultural, ethical, aesthetic, political, ect. The shift from a modern to a postmodern “backdrop” is one that encompasses all these different spheres, making a oversimplified history of ideas insufficient to explain or encapsulate the phenomenon. The modern west, it seems to me, is in the process of transitioning from modernism to postmodernism.
If we are to try to outline how postmodern philosophy took hold, probably the best figure to start with is Immanuel Kant, who argued that we cannot in fact achieve the monarchical vision of the world. Our perception of the Ding in Sich is mediated by a series of conceptual categories, filters which make the world intelligible to us. Thus, there is a distinction between the Noumenon, the world as it is. And the Phenomenon- the world as it appears to us, once it has gone through our filters. Kant the transcendental idealist, thought that all of reality was mediated through consciousness and brought both the primary and secondary qualities into the realm of the phenomenon and maintained that both are simply categories through which we see the world.
Søren Kierkegaard is also a significant figure to mention. Kierkegaard noted that the emphasis on rationality and mechanistic science had left out the most obvious part of reality: the human subject and his existence. While our modern forms of knowing were good for determining what is true in a physical, material sense, we have completely forgotten how to exist. Thus, Kierkegaards famous, or infamous, statement that “truth is subjectivity.” To Kierkegaard, the essential truth, the truth about how to exist and how one should order ones life, could not be found by studying the material universe, but rather, by probing into inwardness and becoming a true self. Its easy to see how this notion of truth as subjectivity could easily be twisted into solipsism and relativism, but this wasn’t at all what Kierkegaard intended. To him, one could only become fully human in relation to God.
A further central development is Phenomenology. Phenomenology was first developed by Edmund Husserl who believed that modern science had taken a wrong turn when it had abandoned the human spirit in favour of naturalism and assumed that all could be explained by purely mechanistic or physical explanations. Truth is reduced to the objective reality outside of ourselves. Husserl realized that we can never understand consciousness from without, but only from within. Thus, to understand human experience, we must probe more and more deeply into the experience of consciousness. To Husserl, the central feature of consciousness was intentionality: that consciousness is thinking about something. This is important, the experience of thinking about an object and the object itself, are two very different things. We can know everything about our experience of the object, but we have only limited knowledge about the object itself. Thus in an act of what he calls bracketing, Husserl puts aside the external world (the neumonal world) and focuses solely on the nature of his conscious experience of the world. This has important implications, Stumpf and Feser write in their textbook, Philosophy: History and Problems:
Thus, the structures of thinking itself determines the appearance of all objects. He designates this immediate phenomenal world of experience as the transcendental realm, and rejects any philosophical theory that attempts to go beyond that realm. He thus rejects Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal (experience) and the neumenal (the thing-in-itself)
We have seen that Husserl urges us to bracket all presuppositions and essentially go back to a prescientific viewpoint, which he believes reflects the original form of human experience. This is the realm of our daily world- the life world. (Lebenswelt) The life world consist of all those experiences in which we are typically involved including perception, response, interpretation, and the organization of the many facets of everyday affairs. This life-world is the source from which the sciences abstract their objects. To that extent the sciences provide only a partial grasp of reality. Much of the rich and meaningful elements of experience remains after the sciences have been abstracted the elements of their concern.
This, it seems to me, is where postmodernism can really take shape. Husserl has distinguished between the human spirit and the scientific, the experiential and the physical. The phenomenological move also differentiates between two different types of truth: the existential and the physical. This is something Kierkegaard wrote about in his Concluding Unscientific Postscripts:
For an objective reflection the truth becomes an object, something objective and thought must be pointed away from the subject. For a subjective reflection the truth becomes a matter of appropriation, of inwardness, of subjectivity, and thought must probe more and more deeply into the subject and his subjectivity.
Husserl’s move of bracketing the scientific and focusing on the existential is one that ruptured philosophy into analytic and continental schools of thought. The former concerned on logic and language, while the latter is concerned with human experience and ontology.
Postmodernism has taken this bracketing move to the extreme and now sees phenomenology and physical reality as two completely unrelated things. This is most clearly seen in the distinction being drawn between gender and sex. Sex is the persons biological sex, given at birth, while gender is the expression of sex through gender expression or social expectations. Here, phenomenology has become unmoored from physical reality and is drifting into sea.
Postmodernists have also moved on from the realm of “pure consciousness” Husserl was exploring, to consider the impact of societal structures, ideologies, hierarchies ect. on our being in the world. While the modernists thought that by the use of pure reason one could achieve a monarchical vision of the world, postmodernists recognize that we wear all kinds of filters which inhabit us from seeing the world as it is. Thus, because we are situated subjects, our apprehension of the world is filtered through various interpretative layers: ideology, gender, race, political affiliation, culture, ect. No one can ever have a “god’s eye view” of the world, because although we can recognize our filters, and try to deconstruct our experience, we can never fully get rid of them or ever fully be aware of them. Thus, we get standpoint epistemology, the idea that people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds have different perspectives on the world that others, who do not share those same backgrounds, cannot appreciate. Postmodern epistemology then, is suspicious of absolute truth claims and sees them as power moves, the attempt of one group, ideology, or political movement to assert its dominance over another.
Enter Jordan Peterson
Jordan Peterson, despite his denouncements of “postmodern neo-marxism” has undoubtedly been influenced by postmodern thought and sits firmly within the continental side of the continental/analytic divide. This becomes clear when Peterson distinguishes between two types of truth, or two ways of construing reality: the world as a forum for action and the world as a space of objects. The world of objects is the world of science and the world of action is the phenomenological world. It is this split world that makes Peterson edgy about answering the question: Are you a Christian? His standard answer, “I act as if Christianity was true,” is a very postmodern one. Here’s why. What Peterson means by acting as if Christianity is true, is not simply that he lives his life by Christian principles, but rather that his entire experience as a western individual has been shaped by Christian principles. Peterson acts as if he is a Christian because he has no other choice: Christianity is built into him, whether he likes it or not. This is why Peterson has provocatively called the new atheists “Christians.” As a strong evolutionary thinker, is keen on pointing out that the values, imaginative structures and religious principles of Christendom have become part of the air we breath or the water we swim in.
Its because of this central point of Peterson’s philosophy, that I don’t understand his hostility to the critical theorists. The postmodernists occupying the “grievance studies” departments of universities are working from within the exact same phenomenological framework Peterson is. Just as Christianity has become “built into us” as lenses through which we see and act in the world, just so, argue the postmodernists, have lenses of white supremacy, patriarchy, sexism and whatnot, become built into our personal, familial social, political and economic, structures. In other words, we don’t just have positive filters informing our decisions, we also have negative filters that lead us into prejudice and discrimination. Indeed, the implicit theory of racism corresponds exactly to Jordan Peterson’s definition of belief. Belief, to Peterson, isn’t just what you say, it is also what you do, how you see the world, it is your Being, it is part of you. So too, racism cannot be measured by statistics measuring incidents of explicit racism, rather, it is built into our way of Being. To the postmodernist, we cannot properly act or see the world since we are blinded by these various layers of bias. Thus, deconstruction begins, as they attempt to remove all hierarchies, prejudice and bias, to get to chaos underneath. Deconstruction, is not a positive project, it seeks only to remove the layers of bias between us and the world.
It is precisely the failure to grasp the distinction between phenomenology and science that have made the critiques of the “social justice religion” by the Intellectual Dark Web, so utterly miss the mark. It is not a critique of “grievance studies” to say it isn’t science: of course it isn’t. Nor will trotting out statistics to show that explicit racism has gone down, counter the claim that the United States is “white supremacist,” you simply aren’t talking about the same reality. It’s not helpful to say the critical race theorists have “redefined racism,” this may be true, but their definition is not a illegitimate one, if considered phenomenologically.
Jordan Peterson tries to get around Postmodernism
This is where Peterson makes two interesting moves.
First, he critiques the radical deconstructionists with his biological argument that our perception cannot function without any order: filters or hierarchies. According to Peterson, the very act of perception or action requires the establishment of a hierarchy. You need to value certain things over others in order to see (filters are hierarchies because you are privileging some realities over others. Take marxism, the lens which sees the world in terms of economic oppression, while ignoring other forces acting on the world such as religion, biology, nature, ideology, ect.) the world and act in it. Drawing on the Genesis creation story, which has God creating the world out of Chaos, through the rational ordering principle of Logos, Peterson notes that we cannot deconstruct all the way down. Because if we go all the way down, we return to chaos and cannot think, or act. Indeed, you can see this radical deconstruction playing itself out in society as hierarchies and borders start to fall away. Hence the abolition of gender, national borders, hierarchies of age (respect your elders), and so fourth.
Peterson’s second move is a constructive one. While postmodernism’s recognition that different world-views constitute different lenses through which the world can be seen, and its cynical dismissal of claims of truth as power moves, brings us to relativism, Peterson’s pragmatism rides in to save the day. To Peterson, while we can never gain the objective view of the world as the modernists thought, we can at least see what works. Thus, when assessing the competing ways of being in the world, Peterson brackets out questions of objective truth, and decides to act as if Christianity were true.
While Peterson likes to ally himself with naive modernists like Harris, Pinker and others in the new atheist camp, he clearly doesn’t fit in. While the aforementioned thinkers are still living in a very modernist world, Peterson clearly inhabits a postmodern world and is grappling with the difficult questions it raises. His synthesis of evolutionary psychology, pragmatism and phenomenology points an interesting way forward, but it remains to be seen weather others will follow.
33 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson the Postmodernist”
First! 🙂 Great job Julian. Nicely done!
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Nice Job for you Paul! There will be a treat. 🙂
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This was a really good article. I don’t really agree with part of the conclusion. Peterson is influenced by continental philosophy, as was Post Modernism, but that doesn’t mean he [Peterson] is a Post Modernist.
His symbolism and metaphorical view is quite medieval whilst his view of belief is Jungian. His view of truth has also heavily influenced by the Pragmatists, especially William James. But he also thinks that the individual phenomenological experience is important and should not be ignored.
To call him a postmodernist because has criticisms of certain branches of modernism is kind of wrong or at least the term is too wide to have any meaning. He is probably better framed as a modernist with influences from Pragmatism and a dislike for scientism (and in turn rationalistic ethics such as Sam Harris or Ayn Rand).
As for Peterson not liking critical theory, I would state that Peterson disagrees with entire concept of “culture is the oppressive force” which is central to critical theory thought. To say that culture and history have heavily influenced a person’s thought process and that you cannot cannot escape that process is the same as critical theory, is just wrong to me. I know Peterson does say “postmodern neomarxist” a lot but he is probably trying to use it as a shorthand for “the postmodern variety of critical theory” and/or the blend of “postmodernism” and “neomarxism” that people are taught at universities at the same time and then hold this weird cognitive dissonance.
Overall, I do think this is a really good article. Keep up the good work! 🙂
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I appreciate the comment Bill, I saw you had originally posted this on PVK’s twitter.
I think you could be right in your criticism, because I do not have a very rigorous definition of postmodernism. It should also be noted that I’m not using postmodernism in a negative sense either, I think postmodernism is right in a lot of its critiques.
Postmodernism, as I think of it, takes phenomenology and existentialism seriously and thinks in those terms. Thus there is a greater focus on the subjective experience of the individual, which isn’t characteristic of modernity as I think of it. This existential/phenomenological outlook, opens up critiques of modernist epistemology. Postmodernists are also concerned with the crisis of meaning modernity has created and either revel in it, or try to come up with solutions. Finally, Postmodernists offer political critiques of the modern political order and ideas of progress: here I would say Peterson is not a postmodernist because he is a liberal in the classic sense and is very much a defender of the modern political order.
Now, maybe you are right that I am defining postmodernism too loosely. However, it does seem to me that Peterson has contended with the key critiques of postmodernism (meaning, truth and political to some extent) and also retained some aspects of postmodernity (existentialism, phenomenology) and ended up in some new place that makes him, as the Germans would say “weder fish noch fleish,” (niether fish nor meat) and thus niether postmodern nor modern.
As for your pushback on my point on critical theory, I guess my main point with that was that the same logic that makes Peterson call a new atheist a christian, can be used to call someone a “white supremicist” and if you accept one, shouldn’t you also have to accept the other? Is culture the oppressive force, I mean to some degree, yes. The difference between the postmodernists and Peterson here would probably be that Peterson thinks culture is progressing, while the postmodernists are skeptical about progress.
Thank you again for the well thought out comment, I appreciate your pushback (thats what a blog is supposed to be all about) and the chance to talk about my ideas.
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For the point about critical theory, being critical about progress is not necessarily postmodern. A lot of the popular modernist, such as Pinker or Harris, are what I would call supporters of the Whig Theory of History. They think history is progressing and things are getting better overall. However, this is a modern view of history and morality.
I personally don’t think that we are continuously progressing rather that in some areas we are getting better (materially things are better due to markets and this has lowered poverty and more) but morally things are getting worse over all. This is the point Peterson kind of addresses. Morally, we have forgotten what “we” have previously
discovered and learnt.
I don’t personally agree with the neomarxist/critical theorist idea that “culture is the oppressor” mainly because I don’t agree with the entire Hegelian “us vs them” metanarrative (to use the Postmodern term).
I could be entirely wrong, I don’t know. But to me, Peterson isn’t a Postmodernist, but rather something that is probably in a category of his own or a category we have just forgotten.
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I agree with your critique of the Whig Theory of History, the new atheist version of history is, quite frankly, mythological on many fronts. They seem to think “the enlightenment” just popped out of nowhere once people started “thinking rationally” and “put away their superstitions.” The idea is that the centuries that came before were characterized by blind faith, ignorance, superstition and all sorts of other horrors. This leads to intellectual snobbery, the idea that only in recent times has anything worth reading been written. All this is probably somewhat of a caricature, but it’s really not too far out.
I think your point about progress and your critique of the idea that “culture is the oppressor” are related. I would agree that we are not progressing morally (or existentially, look at the meaning crisis and the rise in teen suicide) and I would add that I don’t really see technological advancement as progress. We are making all kinds of tradeoffs and I don’t buy the idea that the more technologically advanced a society is, the “better” it is. All that said, what exactly do you mean by “culture is the oppressor?” Do you mean the belief that society/culture is fundamentally rotten at it’s core, instead of being fundamentally oriented towards the good? I mean, there are so many unacceptable evils that we simply tolerate because we are used to them. I’m not thinking as much of racial inequalities, because I’m not as familiar with those, but think about things like the military industrial complex, abortion on demand, our slaughter of innocent people overseas, wealth inequality, the massive overreach and violence of the government, I mean, in some ways, its not illegitimate to say that our society is predicated on violence.
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“JBP… does not inhabit a modernist world (think in the same terms a modernist would) and is instead, very much inhabiting the postmodern world and trying to find a way out of its dilemmas.”
I think this is the best summary I have read. It sums up why Peterson acts and speaks the way he does.
” I’m not thinking as much of racial inequalities, because I’m not as familiar with those, but think about things like the military industrial complex, abortion on demand, our slaughter of innocent people overseas, wealth inequality, the massive overreach and violence of the government, I mean, in some ways, its not illegitimate to say that our society is predicated on violence.”
This is where I think there where we differ in our respective views. I fundamentally reject the entire Hegelian/Neo-Marxist framework entirely. I agree with you about many of those issues but not others such as wealth inequality.
As for wealth inequality, I don’t think this is at all an issue but rather made to look like an issue for political reasons. It’s mostly used by the same types of politicians to give people an “enemy” to be against. If you get more pie but a smaller fraction of that total pie, why is that a bad thing? If the question was to state that some people are getting special privileges from the government as to why they are getting more pie, then I can agree, but that is not “wealth inequality” that is “cronyism”.
As for your last remark “…its not illegitimate to say that our society is predicated on violence.” I would agree this is mostly true, but every society in all of history has been. The government itself is force. The question is how do you keep that force at bay and prevent/reduce the amount of others abusing that force? Maybe it’s my old fashioned English Liberalism speaking but all of those issues you bring up are due to the government itself.
* * *
I’ve been reading your other articles and they really good, I cannot wait for a new one 🙂
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It’s also why so many modernist Christians and atheists find him so confusing. Paul Vanderklay has, as you are probably aware, been very helpful for thinking through these things.
I would say that I am not, at least intentionally thinking within a Hegelian/Marxist framework, but rather attempting to take Christ’s commands seriously. One realization I’ve come to recently is that, as a Christian, my allegiance is ultimately and primarily to Christ and there is no reason for me to defend the violence, evil and injustice of western civilization.
Well, I mean if you want a clear example of this, look at the big tech companies like amazon, apple, Facebook, google, if you want to get cynical about these things, that’s a good place to start. I mean the profits these corporations are generating go far beyond “a slice of the pie.” Companies like amazon are just cutting through their competitors, underpaying and mistreating their employees and gaining incredible amounts of power. You get into things like government lobbying, environmental exploitation, mass consumerism, advertising, costumer surveillance. Admittedly I have to take a deeper look at these things, but I do tend to have a cynical outlook. (Have a look at this article from wired if you want a good, creepy look at how the Chinese surveillance state is making inroads into western countries through big tech https://www.wired.com/story/is-big-tech-merging-with-big-brother-kinda-looks-like-it/)
I think there are two issues here, one a moral judgement that our society is predicated on violence and then second pragmatic considerations of how to midagate that. I think the advantage of being a Christian is that I can keep those two issues separate.
Well thank you, I appreciate the comments. I would recommend my very first on Jordan Peterson and Kierkegaard, if you’re interested in JBP you should enjoy that one as well.
I’m working on a review of Walker Percy’a novel “the moviegoer” now, have you ever read any of Percy’s novels? I’m not sure when that will be ready, my posts get released quite sporadically. 🙂
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Please understand that I was not claiming that you were working under a Neo-Marxist framework. I don’t think you are.
“I think there are two issues here, one a moral judgement that our society is predicated on violence and then second pragmatic considerations of how to midagate that. I think the advantage of being a Christian is that I can keep those two issues separate.”
I hold this view to and I wouldn’t necessarily class myself as “Christian” (that I know of).
“I’m working on a review of Walker Percy’a novel “the moviegoer” now, have you ever read any of Percy’s novels? I’m not sure when that will be ready, my posts get released quite sporadically.”
I have not but I will add it to my ever-growing list of books to read.
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I haven’t read the Marxist thinkers, maybe someday if I get around to it, I’m sure they have some valid things to say.
Okay, its interesting that you can separate the moral from the pragmatic. How is that done within a athiest/agnostic framework? It seems to me that most coherent atheist moral systems depend on maximizing moral flourishing, so that there can be no ideal higher than flourishing in the now. Christians have the advantage of transcendence, so that there are ideals higher than human flourishing. What do you think of that?
Well, I would recommend you read Kierkegaard before you read Percy. Percy draws on a lot of the existentialist thinkers, so you would get more out of him if you read some of them first. He actually had an interesting conversation to Catholicism that came through reading Christian existentialists like Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard.
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Small note: It isn’t efficient to specialize a definition then criticize someone according to the special definition.
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A few notes on that.
A) I am not criticizing Peterson when I call him a postmodernist, for me, it doesn’t carry the same necessarily negative connotations that it does in many circles.
B) What I tried to do, instead of defining PM and then arguing that JBP meets the definition, was to give an intellectual history of how I see PM as developing and then showing that JBP is very much working within that tradition.
C) JBP is definitely no modernist, and in some respects he’s not a postmodernist either. However, he does not inhabit a modernist world (think in the same terms a modernist would) and is instead, very much inhabiting the postmodern world and trying to find a way out of its dilemmas.
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Do you have a better definition of PMism then the one I provided above?
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These three links, if read together, will hopefully help to explain why Peterson reacts like a startled cat with its hair standing on end around postmodernism. In some senses it is fair to say that deconstruction is an assault on meaning itself.
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Paul directed me to your blog a few months ago. Thanks for getting in touch.
I will defiantly read through those links. As I tried to make clear to the commentaries, I am working with very loose definitions of Postmodernism and Modernity, so I might not be completely accurate/rigorous. I would still maintain however, that Peterson is living in a Postmodern (rather than a modern world) and trying to find a way out.
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Bill, if you’re interested, here are some provocative social critiques from a Christian perspective: https://coffeewithkierkgaard.home.blog/2018/11/24/provocative-conversations/
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Thank you for the list. I am personally an agnostic (atheist) and have been my entire life. I’m a physicist by profession so my brain has always been in that very scientific framework however, I am finding all of this fascinating and a lot of this is really resonating with me in a way I am struggling to explain.
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As Paul always says, you better watch what you read if you want to remain an atheist. 😉 Oh wow, what kinds of things do you work on? I think that the scientific framework is one that all of us moderns are sort of trapped in and need to break free of. People like Peterson, Pageau, PVK and Kierkegaard have been helpful for me, even as a Christian, to break out of that sort of thinking.
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I don’t have a good definition. I’ve studied it too little.
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I think that is a good definition very close to my own.
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IMHO, Firstly, Peterson is not a postmodernist; rather, he’s a pre-modernist (or perhaps an early modern); he a relic, an anachronism; reincarnated Jung Lite. He’s derivative at best, though there is a bit of synthesis along the way. Secondly, AFAIK, he believes that there is an accessible objective Truth, and he’s accessed it and sussed it all out. Thirdly, postmodernism covers many disciplines. I am not exactly sure which one )(or all) he rails against. Fourthly, as perhaps implied by the first two, he believes in a noumenal world, so he is at odds with postmodernists who don’t ascribe in this world view. I am not amused.
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Its funny how many people have reacted strongly against my argument. 🙂
I don’t think Peterson is a “premodernist,” you would have to define that. He certainly draws from premodern thought and believes it has relevance today, but he seems to have moved beyond that.
On your second point, it seems like you are steamrolling over some nuances here and are confusing Peterson the personality with the ideas he espouses. I think there is a valid point here, I think this might be something I had overlooked. Many of the postmodernists would be critical of the ability of science to reach objective truth, Peterson would not be sympathetic to such critiques. Peterson thinks you need two different types of truth, and it is in the second, in the phenomenological, where the analogies with PM, in my view, get interesting.
Fourth point, well not all PM (if any) think there is no such a thing as nominal reality. Can you name any?
I don’t see what you thought was amusing.
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Hi Julian, I am not amused with Peterson, but the comment was tongue in cheek.
As for point 4, I believe you are asking for PMs who don’t believe in a ‘noumenal’ world., but this was my mistake. I changed my train of thought from noumenal and meant to switch to phenomenal. Apologies. I am not going to provide a list of sceptics. 😉
This allows me to circle back to your earlier dual truth comment. This phenomenological bent is inherited from Jung. Peterson ascribes to archetypes and the Aristotelian notion of character.
Again, I do agree that Peterson has synthesised, but I still don’t see how he could be classified as a post-modernist. He requires too much order, order which is antithetical to postmoderns almost categorically.
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This is a comment on the observation of Peterson that “First, he critiques the radical deconstructionists with his biological argument that our perception cannot function without any order: filters or hierarchies. According to Peterson, the very act of perception or action requires the establishment of a hierarchy.”
This interpretation shows Peterson attacking a strawman. No one I’ve read has claimed that filters or hierarchies are unnecessary. The argument is that language itself is arbitrary and taxonomy established by this language can be seen as second order arbitrary.
Saussure (a modernist, a structuralist) tried to organise the language, and I appreciate his contribution, but then Derrida pointed out the hierarchical implication, and this is where a postmodernist (or at least a post-structuralist) points out (as Beauvoir and Malcolm X noticed before him). that when we create pairs—male-female; black-white—we may be denoting a seemingly neutral category, but we are connoting something more: it is male over female and white over black, and we can continue with right over wrong, straight over gay, binary over fluid sexual identity. It’s about creating otherness: in groups and out groups. This is very Hegelian.
If it were only about classification, that would be one thing, but it’s more than that.
Taxonomically speaking, a choice was made early on to bifurcate male and female. A quick glance into history reveals that this is not just classification. And this is a higher order classification. Of course, this division is based on physiognomy and allele expression. At the genetic level, it’s not as simple. In gestation, there is no distinction. In a manner of speaking, we are all moulded from the same clay, that is until we develop into something different in the womb. But if we create dimensions at the chromosomal level, we’ll see that no one is precisely male or precisely female. These are just conveniences.
This reminds me of an incident regarding generalisation. When my then-3-year son and I were at a public park, he came upon a poodle. Given his experience in the world, he placed it in the category class that he knew: a lamb. He misclassified it (in some sense) because the ‘woolly’ coat made a larger impression on him than the ‘canine-ness’ of this animal.
If you’ve every attempted classify a large number of complex objects, you know how difficult it is. For example, say you are categorising books. You could choose alphabetical by author’s last name, by title, by genre, by subject, by height, by colour palate, by publication year, by many other things. You would even choose to arrange them by sex or race of the author.
Of course, then we get into the other problem. Genetically, there is no such thing as race. This is an idiomatic classification and not a scientific one. And Peterson is not big into personal identity, but he is still obsessed with a sense of individual and of self—but he needs to be the arbiter of your boundaries—; he is also obsessed with the notions of national identity but claims not to be a nationalist. The problem is that there is no good way to classify a nation because, again, the notion is an arbitrary construction.
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Oops, I ended too soon. I started making the point that in early English, they did not distinguish between male and female children; all children were ‘girls’. Later, ‘boy’ was borrowed from ‘servant’ and eventually adopted for male children. It could have been that this split never happened.
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Sorry, I might have misread the tone of your initial comment. This might speak to the PM point about ambiguity of language. 🙂
On whether Jordan Peterson (JBP) can be classified as a PM, I have because of the criticism I’ve received refined my claim a bit:
“I don’t get Jordan Peterson’s frustration with the Postmodernists, he has very much been influenced by Postmodernism. Peterson is no Modernist, and in some respects he’s not a Postmodernist either. However, he does not inhabit a Modernist world (think in the same terms a modernist would) and is instead, very much inhabiting the Postmodern world and trying to find a way out of its dilemmas.”
I think this because of the questions he is trying to address, most notably the problem of meaning, and the way he is approaching the questions. (phenomenology and existentialism) My key point is that JBP’s logic that Christianity is built into us, is the same logic that is used by the critical theorists. Is JBP too much order to be a PMist? Well, can you really draw such hard boundaries?
You obviously have a stronger grasp on postmodernism than I do, so I am glad to have your feedback.
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I believe the contention is that as we write this, there are modernists, postmodernists, and post-post-modernists who label themselves metamodernists, but from when I can tell this movement neither goes beyond postmodernism nor synthesises modern and postmodern beliefs. If anything, it might be where Peterson is. I don’t know enough about it, but it feels like it’s just trying to take modernism in a different direction—a sort of re-do. Modernism tried to get rid of the metaphysical whilst metamodernism embraces it. Postmodernism says that things are arbitrary, so the implication is that you can take a culture in one direction or another and create some shared metanarrative, but these are just stories.
Nietzsche recognised this when he looked around and noticed that fewer people where believing in God, and so he declared (via the dialogue of a character in his novel), ‘God is dead’. This disturbed Nietzsche. He understood that society needed a common narrative. God had provided the narrative of objective Truth, so without God, what would that be. The Enlightenment tried to substitute an animate Nature, and it has sort of worked until postmodernists pointed out the sleight of hands. If anything, postmodernism rejects the metanarrative that creates things like religions and nationalities. Peterson embraces metanarratives. He doesn’t reject them.
Metamodernists attempt to create a mystical metanarrative. I might classify Russell Brand as a metamodernist for the same reason. Recently, Brand and Peterson had a dialogue and they were not at odds with each other because they found common ground at this mystical level, the same mystical level Jung occupied. Peterson is derivative Jung, as I’ve said. Jung is no postmodern. I’m pretty sure you could say that he didn’t have both feet inside the ‘modern’ circle.
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“This interpretation shows Peterson attacking a straw-man. No one I’ve read has claimed that filters or hierarchies are unnecessary. The argument is that language itself is arbitrary and taxonomy established by this language can be seen as second order arbitrary.”
Okay, well here is a question: When do you stop deconstructing? If you say language is arbitrary and that the classifications we make between things are arbitrary, or if you at least start down that path, our apparatus to make sense of the world falls apart. As you point out later in your comment, this doesn’t stay within language, it scales up to the real world and real life distinctions start to fall apart: sex, race, borders. This is, to use JBP language, a decent into chaos.
It seems to me that an attack on language is attack on everything because language is so fundamental. Think of it in terms of the Genisis creation myth. Okay, so we have chaos, which is the world, undifferentiated, unclassified, stuff. We impose Logos, (this here is language and taxonomy) on it and then we get order. So if the PMs are attacking Logos, they are undermining order and returning to chaos. The logos is the hierarchy and the filter, language is the filter and the hierarchy. Am I missing something?
This is interesting stuff anyway.
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Julian. You’ve hit on a central reason that people don’t like postmodernists. There is a similar distaste to anarchy. I’ll just speak for Derrida—something he’d be wholly against given his ‘author is dead’ stance, but I’m a rebel, 😉
Some, if not most, people find comfort in order. Deconstructivism is NOT about finding order. It is going the other way, sort of like trying to get to the bottom of the turtles that go all the way down. They do not attempt to reconstruct anything. (It seems it should be obvious by the name.) The underlying point is that we could look at language as some random Lego pieces; they could be assembled any number of ways. Culturally (and given the limitations of the Lego design), you’d notice a lot of similar constructions. If you created rules (syntax in language), you’d limit the possibilities, but let’s not go down some linguistic rabbit hole.
As I said in my last response, fundamentally, postmodernists oppose the notion of a metanarrative. Any metanarrative is arbitrary, as well. So, when someone claims ‘my country is better’, ‘my nation is better’, ‘my religion is better’, ‘my race is better’, whatever is better, they are basically saying that they’ve bought into some metanarrative.
In the sports world (a world I avoid), one’s favourite team is highly correlated to proximity to that team; one’s ‘chosen’ religion is highly correlated to their parent’s religion. I suppose I don’t have to mention the correlation to language and place of birth.
Anyway, I’ve been distracted by life several times as I’ve written this, but I’ll end it with this. Humans are social animals, and they appear to want order, but most people (in the Hegelian, Nietzschean world) are slaves and not masters. It takes quite a bit for people to overthrow their masters, and when they do it’s usually been a matter of ‘the king is dead; long live the king,’ or ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. So when someone tells them that the order is pretty much meaningless beyond what meaning you ascribe to it (or how you buy into the metanarrative), it upsets the status quo.
Given extended tribalism, national cohesion relies on this metanarrative, so the power structure relies on this in the same way Nietzsche noticed people needed the notion God. Without God, then what? So, we’ve tried secular governments, and that’s worked somewhat, too, but postmodernists question the underlying legitimacy of that, too.
So, if I am a politico operating within some system, I may not be at the top of that system, but my livelihood relies on that system being the adopted system. If I am playing football based on football rules and then someone say, no, we’re playing basketball, this will have an impact on outcomes.
So, not I’m just rambling. You mention chaos. Yes. But there is nothing that says that order is necessary. We understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Entropy is the prevalent force in nature: Without energy, things fall apart. In society, energy is enforcing the metanarrative. Defending the metanarrative is where the energy is expended. I live in the dystopian world that is the United States. The metanarrative is that is it is the greatest country in the world ) maybe in the universe), and the Trumpians want to Make America Great Again, as if it’s ever actually been great.
Two more topics: language and tourism.
As I’ve said, language is not neutral, so I can use it to create in and out groups. The concepts of tolerance and intolerance are competing narratives. The correct position is likely somewhere in between, yet not in the middle. Within civil society, a balance must be struck, but to a postmodernist (and certainly a nihilist), that whether society exists doesn’t matter in the greater view. If the earth had no humans, the rest of the universe would be virtually unaffected (butterfly effect and chaos theory notwithstanding). Ditto is there was no earth. Ditto if there was no solar system or galaxy or universe or multiverse for that matter. This is disconcerting to people who want to believe their lives have some higher meaning.
As for tourism, depending on where you’ve lived and visited, take some time to watch some travel-promotion videos on YouTube. These places look wonderful. Now take a look at a place you know, and compare the vids to your sense of reality. Take a look at videos of Manchester in UK. These videos are meant to construct a positive metanarrative, but it’s all about framing, and with videos, it’s literally about framing the shot.
Sorry for rambling and ranting. I guess I have a lot to say. I think I’ll make a post on travel tourism next. Take care.
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Thanks for bringing your knowledge to my comment section, this is all very enlightening. You’ve pretty much written a blog post in response, it might be worth reworking a bit and posting over on your site. 🙂
Some comments/reflections of some of what you present here:
You mention that a key part of PMism is the rejection of metanarratives. This makes me think of the USA bringing “peace and democracy” to middle eastern countries and in effect forcing their way on others. In this way, there is the violence of empire present in modernity. Where one metanarritive is force on another in a manner which could be compared to rape.
At the same time, it seems to me that there is also a violence in PMism. In its rejection of all metanarritives, it levels and destroys all, in what could be compared to the violence of nature. PMism the violence of the tsunami, rushing in to tear down and overrun all existing structures.
It seems to me that there is a existential critique that can be made here. The PMist is in the difficult position of saying one thing and doing another. He rationally deconstructs everything, but he cannot finally inhabit that world and he does not attempt to do so. If tried to live in his system, as Kierkegaard once said: the most tolerable outcome would be suicide. So there is a tension here between what the PMist believes at a conscious level and how he acts and sees the world at a more fundamental level. This isn’t really a critique of the project of deconstruction I suppose, but it does seem to indicate that it cannot be where we end.
Now this tension that every PMist must face: that deconstruction is not constructive, that there is no “metanarritive” to stand on, raises a question about one of JBP’s main opponents: the so called “Social Justice warriors.” Bear with me, leaving aside whether we agree with them or not, I think this is an interesting question. These people would call themselves postmodernists and claim that their is not overaching metannarritive, and yet, they have created a metanarrative out of fighting for social justice. Anyone who opposes their aim of forcing their view of social justice on the rest of society, would not just be called immoral, but also wrong. So in this way, they have created a new totalitarian metannaritive that all must adhere to. So can the “SJW’s” (for lack of a better term) really be called postmodernists?
On your point about Nietzsche and God, (I think this is in your second comment) this is something I’ve thought of as well. It seems to me that the progression from Modernity to Pmism is best seen in light of Nietzsche’s death of God. The enlightenment thinkers tried to keep the goods of a theistic worldview without the metaphysical underpinnings. The PMists are pointing out that you can’t keep the goods without the metaphysics. I think this opens up a lot of interesting theological moves for postmodern theology.
Thanks for your comments once again, I will be sure to keep up with your blog.
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I still feel I’m not giving you the good faith effort you asked for. I know nothing of you. I have no context at all. Do such worries align me with your definition of postmodern? Your answer isn’t something I’ll consider defining of me but of you. It will help me with some context. I need to read more of what you have written here on your blog. I need to reread your essay (this one). I may be objecting more to my own impressions than your statements. (Well, what I’m giving you is to my understanding of what you said. What I’m worried about is that your statements might not align well with my initial impressions.)
Regardless, I’ve gone through the Britannica article and made the notes below with an eye to addressing what you said about JBP and postmodernism. I’ll borrow your opening disclaimer to your essay and point out that I’m an engineer, not a philosopher, and I’m also trying to figure stuff out. Maybe the following will help us.
“in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.”
Broad skepticism, subjectivism, and relativism, and suspicion? Why not rejection? Regardless, they don’t like reason. I think my biggest problem, and JBP’s, is the ideology and politics. I reject postmodernism as defined above without reservation.
“Postmodernism is largely a reaction against the intellectual assumptions and values of the modern period”
1. An objective natural reality independent of humans or mind.
I don’t suppose I can allow for a naive realism, but reality doesn’t depend on me. I am not the center. If I am, there is nothing. If my perception is the only thing that exists objectively, then nothing exists. I and my perceptions are simply an illusion. How could they be something else with no reality to found such on?
I cannot countenance the notion that reality is simply some conceptual construct of society and language. Good grief. How can anyone? History will always have its mysteries, and we must acknowledge we cannot go back and verify, but the simplest of people understand the foundation of history. It happened. Even if we “remember” it wrong, it happened. The intent of historical inquiry is to get it as right as we can, as little wrong as we can.
The given definition is simply stating that nothing is fact, all is subjective. I reject the notion. Facts are real and verifiable. With Mulder, I aver, the truth is out there. It is hard for us, and we do err, but we can effectively pursue truth, we can correct, we can move toward accuracy and away from error. Postmodernism seems to suppose that only power and dominance can accomplish anything and no truth or accuracy matters. False! Political power does not matter. It is the harm. Authoritarianism is the force behind evil at all levels. We must all stand together without coercion and seek correction of ourselves and our own ideas. Forcing something on anyone for any reason is simply evil. And as JBP states, we have a lot easier time identifying evil than good. Coercion is evil. Start there. Postmodernists cannot.
3. “Through the use of reason and logic, and with the more specialized tools provided by science and technology, human beings are likely to change themselves and their societies for the better. It is reasonable to expect that future societies will be more humane, more just, more enlightened, and more prosperous than they are now.” Postmodernism rejects that observation, pretending it is false, despite obvious verifiability.
What, really? Come off it. Humankind spent a quarter of a million years thinking like we think, wanting like we want, loving like we love, hating like we hate, and nothing ever changed. Life was dirty, brutal, and short. Then comes the notion that social (and military) power isn’t the be all end all of reality, and we start checking things. We allow our creativity to flow, we come up with ideas and explanations, and we check them. We call such science, but Logos may be the better descriptor. Does my saying so make you think of me as postmodern?
The scientific mode of thinking started long before the enlightenment. Various souls noticed and adhered to that which was recheckable for a few centuries before Christ, but it flowered from the respect for the humanity of every individual universalized by the Christ-movement. We quit supposing the authority was always right, and we started checking for ourselves. We realized the important thing was to not fool ourselves, and we realized we were the easiest ones to fool. So we got better at it, more formalized. Of course, science has tended to become a religion of its own, scientism, with its own dogma and priests and inspired scriptures. It is no surprise a movement would come along to oppose the “power” of scientism, just as movements have always opposed the “power,” the “PTBs,” as it were. I assert (as it seems to me JBP does) that religion has its place and its usefulness, even its essentialness, but no religion of authority, no authoritarianism can stand. Authoritarianism of all stripes, be it political, or social, or institutional, or even in business, is bad. Authoritarianism results in bad outcomes. Authoritarianism results in more pain and suffering than would have attained without authoritarianism, with cooperation and volunteerism. See my comments on 2., please.
4. “Reason and logic are universally valid,” is a true statement, but it must have qualifiers. Evil conclusions can be arrived at with valid logic and sound reasoning. Reason can justify anything the heart desires. Reason, simply, is limited. The reasoning of a perfect omniscient being, notionally, should always be valid, should always provide the best possible “thought.” But, of course, that is impossible for finite minds. An eternal, infinite, mind would have no limitations, but that is not our discussion. The notion is whether reason is generally valid, and postmodernism rejects the possibility.
In the way stated in the Britannica article, we objectively aver reason and logic. Reason and logic apply to all thinkers, all actors, in all situations, under all finite circumstances in our reality. Postmodernism rejects our reality, so of course, they reject reason as reasonable.
Backing out to maximum, we are, or we are not. There is meaning, or there is not. There is reason, or there is not. I aver that rejecting reason and meaning is simply unreasonable. If a person, a thinker, rejects reason and thinking, they are simply espousing nonsense, and we have no obligation to try to reason with them. Certainly, science and empiricism are not the be-all, end-all, but they are among our most reliable tools. We must improve upon what science and empiricism can do for us with our will, our emotions, and with our hope and love, but we still have to be rigorous about it, or we are simply adrift. The “modern” notions apply to more than just science. We are rejecting scientific reasoning when we pretend perception doesn’t matter. Phenomenon does matter, and it must be accounted, but that is the point. We take an attitude of checking and verifying. We never take it on faith in the experts, nor on faith in the ideology. We check, and we check again. We stay cognizant of the likelihood we are fooling ourselves, and we keep trying to figure out better ways to not do so. We keep trying to correct. We devote ourselves to truth and correction, no matter how painful or embarrassing. We trust in the Logos even though we know we cannot fully comprehend it, not now, not ever.
5. There is such a thing as human nature. There really isn’t need to go further. We have various ways to explain it, and to explain it away, but it is real, and it is fatal to deny it. Humans have a somewhat variable set of behaviors, tendencies, and limitations that are reasonable to call, collectively, our nature. To plan a course of action contrary to human nature is to plan to fail.
The nurture/nature question will remain. It is unresolveable while we are human. There is true agency. Free will in the broad sense is no illusion. We know, though, that our power of will is limited. Duh! We are finite. Our freedom is also finite, but it is real. I can always choose, even though I often fail to choose what I reason is best. I am not an automata. I am limited by my nature, and to succeed I must account for my nature. I must plan to accomplish the actions that will overcome my limitations to accomplish my higher goals. Failure to do so never proves free will is an illusion. Determinism does not scale. A sequence of events can be arranged and predetermined, but our reality is not so. It is too complex to be predetermined, and it is always so.
Anyone with more than three children understands human nature. Personality is innate. It is inborn. Infinite complexity in infinite diversity, but some things can be counted on, at least on average. Our limitations as living, evolving, biological, thinking beings living as male and female sets boundaries, and these boundaries necessarily define our human nature, even if the definition is a little fuzzy and given to exceptions.
6. Wow. Huh? What does that even mean? Muddled minds must find excuses and justification for their confusion. I think this point is the burr under JBP’s saddle. The point stated in the Britannica article implies nothing has any meaning, and I can do anything I want, call it anything I want, and die trying, because sooner or later, reality will overcome my confusion and end me.
People can communicate effectively. People can share knowledge. People can share emotion and understanding. People can love. These things are all contained in language. Sure, language is limited. Poetry and art, in general, help us overcome some of the limitations. Still, no man is an island, and we are all part of the whole. We act as part of the whole mostly by language. To pretend language is as ungrounded and infinitely-regressive as indicated in the Britannica article is, again, nonsense. Taking nonsense seriously is irksome to sensible minds.
7. We can know things, but Voltaire was wise to observe that certainty is absurd. In physics, we have gained enough confidence in some things to call them constant and exact, but hopefully, we will not lose sight of the fact we are limited. We cannot verify all the possibilities. Some things do not lend to falsifiability and simply cannot be known with any confidence or certainty, but we can know things. We still must aim for correction and for more confidence by checking more. Being ever skeptical does not mean rejecting what we know. It means being humble enough to remember we might be wrong.
Cogito ergo sum is not an unshakable foundation, but it is a place to stand. It is firm enough to support an edifice. There is something. I perceive it. If I am deluded, well, it is astonishing how easily you join my delusion.
8. All models are wrong, but some are useful. All researchers, even the postmodernists, assume they can construct general theories to explain things. Saying otherwise is nonsense. Someone who is so egotistical as to pretend to know a model is a true and absolute representation of reality is simply that, egotistical. It is an irrational notion that approaches insanity. Sure, grand metanarratives are going to be limited, wrong even, but some overarching theories and narratives are useful. Using them is only reasonable. I agree that imposing conformity is coercion, and coercion is evil. Using a model for what it is useful for is not coercive. It is enlightening. It is limited, to be sure, but knowledge is the thing that is scarce. All tools that improve our knowledge are useful and should be used skillfully.
The relativism aspects discussed in the Britannica article seem unworthy of consideration. Asserting the only truth is my truth, and all things are relative to it is not useful. I am not the center of the universe. If I am the center of my universe, I am insane.
If there is other than me, then there must be something about it that can be equated by others. Something about reality simply must be objective in the sense we use the word. While the dress may look blue to one and gold to another, we can objectively quantify the RGB values of the pixels making up the image, and we can quantitatively, reproducibly, reliably, check again and again and state the RGB values, and we can all understand that that set of values constitutes a certain color under objective circumstances. Sure, because this person has trained in digital image interpretation differently than that person, and therefore sees a different set of colors in their understanding of what they are looking at, the objective reality persists. The objective reality can be identified, and people of good faith will agree upon it. Sure, there can be the insane, there can be the contrary, there can be those whose ego is such to embolden them to reject any correction, but that is my overall point. Reality is what it is, and we can understand it, but not without error. We can’t get it right, but we can keep trying, and keep checking, and we do gradually get it more right. We grow to less and less error, though painstakingly slowly.
Physics is establishing truth about some things. Physics is establishing what can be known as possible and what can be known as impossible. It seems inevitable that we will grow to know more and more reliably. It seems just as inevitable that as we know more, we will know there is more, and more, to learn and know. We cannot attain omniscience, but we can, we must, trust that we can draw ever closer to it in some quantifiable and verifiable sense.
I now know too much about postmodernism. I can’t stand it. It is repulsive. I can’t help but suppose JBP feels something similar. It is not “grown-up” to suppose that nothing can be known, that nothing has meaning. It is nonsense. Childishness and maturity are not in consideration. The point is sense or nonsense. Reasonableness or abject confusion. What is at stake is cooperation versus tyranny.
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Thanks for the in-depth response, I’m afraid I don’t have the time to get back to you in detail. But thank you for contributing to the conversation.
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